The field of research handily but also inaccurately termed “Talmudic medicine” had its hayday from the mid-nineteenth century to the early twentieth century. At its peak, Julius Preuss published his Biblisch-Talmudische Medizin, a comprehensive survey of all medical knowledge in ancient Jewish texts that summarized over a century of scholarship.[i] Preuss and his colleagues focused in their pioneering on discovering and rehabilitating medical (and other technical) information as being ‘truly’ (i.e. Greek) scientific, though often to positivistic ends. In light of new scholarship in ancient Jewish history, Talmudic studies, and adjacent fields, it is necessary to re-contextualize and compare rabbinic medical knowledge more broadly, which has given rise to a small but growing subfield.[ii]
Today, I would like to exemplify some of the challenges and opportunities in my current study[iii] of Talmudic medicine by looking at a narrative featured in the Palestinian and Babylonian Talmudic traditions (Shabbat/Avoda Zara):
R. Abahu (Palestine, ca. 300 CE) [said] in the name of R. Yohanan: “Therefore, ṣifduna/ṣofdina disease (ציפדונה-צפדינה ) is a danger [to life].” [Once] R. Yohanan suffered from this [illness] and he went to the daughter of Dadmitian / Timtinis[iv] in Tiberias to get healed by her. In the evening [before Shabbat] he went up to her and asked: “Will I need anything [for my cure] for tomorrow?”
She said to him: "You do not need anything. But if necessary [take only] date stones (וגלֿ/רעינין דתמרין), the halves of them burned/roasted. And some say: [stones of] Nicolaus [dates] and husk/ glume of barley (ועור דסערין) [grains/kernels], and dried excrements of an infant (וצאוה יבושה דמיינוק). Pulverize [the ingredients] and anoint [yourself with them], but do not say anything to anyone!”
[However,] the next day he came and taught it in public [variant: in the study house]. Some say: she strangled herself. And some say: she became a proselyte.
You learn from this three [things/lessons]. (a) You learn from this that ṣifduna/ṣofdina is dangerous [to life]. (b) And you learn from this that one heals everything from the lips inwards [on Shabbat]. (c) And you learn from it what R. Ya’aqov bar Acha said in the name of R. Yohanan: “If the [non-Jewish practitioner] is a skilled doctor/expert physician (רופא אומן), [the healing] is permitted”. (Palestinian Talmud, yShabbat 14,4 [14d]/ cf. yAvoda Zara 2,2 [40d])
This story portrays Rabbi Yochanan suffering from a disease called ṣifduna/ṣofdina (צפדינה- ציפדונה), which is most likely an inflammation of the mouth. He seeks treatment from a named female expert in the Galilee. In order to avoid any violation of Shabbat restrictions, R. Yochanan inquires about how to prepare a just-in-case remedy. The healer shares the recipe for a paste or salve. Ignoring the healer’s request for confidentiality, R. Yochanan reveals his newly acquired knowledge to the public. This causes the woman to react in two possible ways: conversion or suicide. The “conversion out of admiration for the superiority of the Jews and their Torah” is a standard pattern in the interactions with non-Jews in rabbinic texts. However, the other consequence of suicide, which might reflect, in fact, the “social death” of the female expert, seems more likely.
This kind of case story is very good to think with in terms of rabbinic religious law (Halakhah) and related discussions in the Talmud. The three final lessons invoked by the Talmudic compilers seem to substantiate such an educational value. The danger of the specific disease is underscored; the anecdote illustrates what is meant by “healing everything from the lips inward” and subsumes this ailment under the principle that in life-endangering medical situations healing is permitted even on the Sabbath; moreover, the last rule harkens back to broader halakhic discussions about the permissibility and trustworthiness of non-Jewish healers. This brief episode, however, presents also a treasure chest for scholarly inquiry into the interrelated aspects of healing, knowledge transfers, and religion in late antiquity.
First, while the text provides material for the history of medicine, one should avoid the understandable but problematic reflex to engage primarily in retrospective diagnosis that uses anachronistic knowledge from modern day medical training (e.g., pathology and pharmacology) to explain ancient approaches to and representations of bodies and illnesses.[v] Instead of searching for exact parallels with a Graeco-Roman or other ancient recipe, scholars have recently proposed to look for conceptual or structural similarities. Such a comparison of the ailment and the recipe reveals astonishing similarities with pharmaceutical approaches shared across ancient Egyptian, Mesopotamian, and Graeco-Roman (Dioscorides, Pliny, the Elder, Galen, Pseudo-Apuleius, Medicina Plinii) medical traditions. Although some of the ingredients like excrement were in earlier literature often belittled as magic or superstitious, recent studies have argued for a more balanced re-evaluation of mago-medical approaches and emphasized the ubiquitous application of what was formerly termed Dreckapotheke (‘dirt pharmacy’) among medical experts in the ancient Mediterranean, including Graeco-Roman medical authors.[vi]
Second, the occurrence of this passage in two different but related tractates of the Palestinian Talmud, one of which has a parallel in the Babylonian Talmud, provides a rich source for textual criticism and the comparative reading of rabbinic texts regarding discursive or halakhic shifts, as studied by Christine Hayes and Alyssa M. Gray.[vii] However, one gets the impression that the medical information, as well as the description of the social interaction, must have been of interest beyond the confinements of the local, religious, or juridical discussion.
As in other Talmudic tractates, the episode may have served the rabbinic authors or compilers as a peg to hang their specific and rather detailed knowledge about an illness and its cure(s). When focusing on the literary dimensions of rabbinic texts, it is of interest how this particular medical anecdote appropriates common rabbinic forms of didactic narratives that present the rabbis’ teachings and their actions as role models (as in the chreia, the ma`asseh, or the rabbinic exemplum). However, these Talmudic healing narratives tend to resemble also other “epistemic genres” (Gianna Pomata) like the recipe or the case story that prevailed in ancient medical literatures.
A careful study of the discursive strategies and the embeddedness of such medical knowledge within their broader contexts of theology or religious law (Halakhah), allows one to highlight the differences in form and content in the variants of this narrative. The Palestinian Talmud (Yerushalmi), due to the original context of permitted and forbidden (healing) actions on Shabbat, clearly focuses on the question of medical emergency (i.e., is this a dangerous, possibly life-threatening condition) as well as on the recipe and the sorts of preparations involved. By contrast, the Babylonian Talmud in Avoda Zara (Foreign Worship) 28a zeroes in on the permissibility of interaction with non-Jewish healers, which could involve idolatrous or other forbidden practices. Moreover, it discusses at length the legitimacy of tricking the healer and revealing her (esoteric?) knowledge. However, in a manner characteristic of the Babylonian Talmud, the authors used this anecdote as a steppingstone to add a host of medical information – about symptoms, etiologies and cures for ṣofdina/ṣifduna and numerous other ailments – running over two additional folio pages in the standard printed edition.
Third, this narrative attests to the diverse nature of ancient healing expertise, as shared and contested among different healing professionals and lay people with access to knowledge. R. Yochanan`s case ties in with the model of the “medical marketplace,” which can be refined in light of recent studies as a competition between various medical “freelance experts” who blur modern disciplinary distinctions and seldom fit into dichotomies like religion vs. science, or magic vs. rationalism.[viii] The careful discussion and comparison of various healing experts featured in Talmudic texts (like the native Ta`ayya, Em shel Abayye, or various doctors) as well as in Graeco-Roman, early Christian, and other ancient traditions remains a desideratum.
Fourth, the interaction between the rabbi and the female healer sheds light on dimensions of otherness and identity entangled in ancient discourses about healing experts. Maybe all too hastily, the non-Jewish background of this woman named Timtinis has been taken for granted. This interpretation evokes not only the complex discussion about gentile healing in rabbinic texts but invites discussions about strategies to delineate social boundaries, while concurrently transgressing them in many ways. Even if Timtinis is understood as a Jewish healer, she still remains a woman. This urges us to address gender biases in ancient healing traditions. From early on, female medical knowledge in various cultures has been connected to accusations of magic and witchcraft. R. Yochanan`s exploitation of the female healer may corroborate this pattern. Although promising otherwise, he reveals the recipe thereby exposing the woman’s expert knowledge and techne, with some life-changing, if not life-ending consequences. In similar instances, rabbis deploy a common strategy labelled aptly by Charlotte Fonrobert as “displacement of the native speakers”. According to this pattern, rabbis first adopt, then gradually conceal or even replace first-hand experience or expert knowledge (e.g., menstruating women, female healers, dream interpreters etc.) within their discussions of the matter.[ix]
Finally, the study of rabbinic discourses on health and illness allows for inspiring dialogues with recent inquiries into ancient medicine that show an increasing awareness of new approaches (historical anthropology, cultural studies, critical science studies, gender studies) and of intersections between medicine, religion, philosophy, and literature. A particularly fruitful area for cross-disciplinary exchanges seems to me the shared medical knowledge and its intertwining with religious discourses (Halakha, sermons, ascetic and monastic traditions) in Jewish and Christian texts in Late Antiquity, the study of which has just recently begun.[x] Moreover, the inquiry into ancient Jewish medical episteme benefits from developments in the history of science where scholars have shifted from teleological narratives to exploring the historical and culturally contingent formations of sciences and knowledge.[xi]
Through interaction with these and neighboring disciplines, scholars of Jewish, Christian and other (late) ancient traditions will be able to explore comparatively how manifestations of knowledge (concepts, institutions, practices) impacted specific periods, and in turn were shaped by larger socio-historical, cultural and religious formations. It will require a thorough and inter-disciplinary study of many traditions (like rabbinic texts, Christian sermons, ascetic or monastic traditions) that were previously studied upon other terms (i.e. primarily as literature, philosophy, theology or religious law) in order to flesh out shared but also distinct ways of knowing. To contribute to this admittedly difficult and complex project is an equally challenging but fascinating and rewarding endeavor.
Dr. Lennart Lehmhaus is currently a Rothfeld Fellow at the Katz Center for Advanced Judaic Studies at the University of Pennsylvania after completing a Harry-Starr Fellowship at Harvard University. He works at Freie Universität Berlin as a postdoctoral researcher in a project on Jewish medical knowledge in late antiquity.
[i] Julius Preuss, Biblisch-Talmudische Medizin. Beiträge zur Geschichte der Heilkunde und der Kultur überhaupt (Berlin: S. Karger, 1911); translated by Fred Rosner as Jullius Preuss‘ Biblical and Talmudic Medicine (New York/London: Samhedrin Press, 1978). For a survey of Preuss‘ precursors and contemporaries like Gintzburg(er), Wunderbar, Brecher, Rabinowitz, Bergel Krauss, and Löw, see Robert Jütte, “Die jüdische Medizingeschichtsschreibung im 19. Jahrhundert und die Wissenschaft des Judentums,” Aschkenas 9:2 (1999): 431-446.
[ii] Cf. the research and dissertation projects The Transfer of Medical Episteme in the ‘Encyclopaedic’ Compilations of Late Antiquity; BabMed – Fragments of Cuneiform Medicine in the Babylonian Talmud: Knowledge Transfer in Late Antiquity; Purpose and Nature of the Talmudic Medical Units in Tractates Shabbat, Pessachin, Gittin and Avodah Zara (Monika Amsler, Zürich), and the current dissertation project by Shulamith Shinnar (Columbia University, NYC; publications like Ancient Jewish Sciences and the History of Knowledge in Second Temple Literature (ed. by J. Ben-Dov and S.L. Sanders; NYU Press, 2014); Defining Jewish Medicine. Transfer of Medical Knowledge in Jewish Cultures and Traditions (ed. by L. Lehmhaus; Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz, 2017); or conference events like Medicine in Bible and Talmud, EABS; What Did Ancient Jews Know? Exploring the Place of Scientific Knowledge in the World of Ancient Judaism, PSCO 2017-18; Jewish Medicine, EAJS 2014.; ‘What did the rabbis know?’ – exploring Jewish knowledge culture(s) in Late Antiquity, AJS 2017.
[iii] My current work will contribute to an annotated edition of medical passages from rabbinic literature in a new Sourcebook Series on Ancient Sciences, as well as to a book project tentatively titled “Talmudic Bodies of Knowledge – Jewish Medical Episteme and Expertise in Late Antiquity”.
[iv] Cf. the German translation (Hüttenmeister 2004, p. 377): “Tochter des Dadmitinus” (Dadmitinus’s daughter), based on the Palestinian Talmud in Shabbat reading bat Domitian(us). The Palestinian Talmud in yAvoda Zara 2,2 (40d), however, refers to her as Timtinis. For the name and cultural background of this female expert physician, see Tal Ilan, “`Stolen Water is Sweet´: Women and their Stories between Bavli and Yerushalmi,” in The Talmud Yerushalmi and Graeco-Roman Culture III (edited by P. Schäfer; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2002), pp. 185-224, esp. pp. 191-195.
[v] For the attempts of identification, see Marcus Jastrow, A Dictionary of the Targumim, the Talmud Babli and Yerushalmi, and the Midrashic Literature (London: Luzac& Co./ New York: G.P. Putnams’s sons, 1903), p. 1295: “scurvy”; Michael Sokoloff, A Dictionary of Palestinian Jewish Aramaic, p. 463: “ציפדון n.m a sickness (cf. H צפד to press,contract […])”; Julius Preuss, Biblical and Talmudic Medicine. Translated by Fred Rosner (New York: Sanhedrin Press, 1978), pp. 171-72: “stomatitis”. For a critical survey of all identifications, see Samuel Kottek ,“Selected Elements of Talmudic Medical Terminology, with Special Consideration to Graeco-Latin Influences and Sources”, in Aufstieg und Niedergang der Römischen Welt (ANRW) II, 37:3 (edited by W. Haase and H. Temporini. New York), pp. 2912-2932, here pp. 2925-26, who derives it (following Buxtorf) from the Greek term sephedon indicating a putrid abscess.
[vi] For a more comprehensive discussion, see Lennart Lehmhaus, “Beyond Dreckapotheke, between facts and feces: Talmudic recipes and therapies in context”, in Collecting Recipes. Byzantine and Jewish Pharmacology in Dialogue (edited by M. Martelli and L. Lehmhaus; Berlin/Boston: De Gruyter, 2017), pp. 221-254.
[vii] Cf. Christine Hayes, Between the Babylonian and Palestinian Talmud. Accounting for Halakhic Difference in Selected Sugyot from Tractate Avodah Zarah (New York/Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997); Alyssa M. Gray, A Talmud in Exile. The Influence of Yerushalmi Avodah Zarah on the Formation of Bavli Avodah Zarah (Providence: Brown Judaic Studies, 2005). For the Babylonian Talmud parallels, see Avoda Zara 28aand Yoma 84a).
[viii] For the pluralism of healing experts and medicine as a public art, cf. Vivian Nutton, Ancient Medicine. 2nd edition (London/New York: Routledge, 2013), pp. 254-278. For competing religious experts, see Heidi Wendt, At the Temple Gates. The Religion of Freelance Experts in the Roman Empire (New York: oxford University Press, 2016), esp. pp. 6-36, and 114-145.
[ix] For general tendencies, see Daughters of Hecate: Women and Magic in the Ancient World (ed. by K.B. Stratton and D.S. Kalleres; New York/Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014). For female expertise in Talmudic sources, see Tal Ilan, Silencing the Queen. The Literary Histories of Shelamzion and Other Jewish Women (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2006), esp. pp. 167-172; Charlotte Fonrobert, Menstrual Purity. Rabbinic and Christian Reconstructions of Biblical Gender (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2000), esp. pp. 128-159, and here: p. 109.
[x] Just to mention a few contributions to the field: the special issue of the Journal of Late Antiquity 8,2 (2015); Heidi Marx-Wolf, "Medicine", in Late Ancient Knowing (edited by C. M. Chin and M. Vidas; Berkeley: University of California Press, 2015), pp. 80–98; John Penniman, Raised on Christian Milk. Food and the Formation of the Soul in Early Christianity (New Haven/London: Yale University Press, 2017).
[xi] Cf. Francesca Rochberg, „The History of Science and Ancient Mesopotamia“, JAMEH 1 (2014): 37-60; Lorraine Daston, „Science Studies and the History of Science“, Critical Inquiry 35 (summer 2009): 798-812; Jürgen Renn, “From the History of Science to the History of Knowledge – and Back”, CENTAURUS 57 (2015): 37-53.